Toss a few grenades and something’s gonna happen

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It was just Game 21 on the schedule, a late November affair that wouldn’t have jumped off the page at the start of the long 82-game campaign. But make no mistake: Saturday’s clash against Calgary, one which saw the Winnipeg Jets dig an early 2-0 hole only to pull off an impressive 4-2 comeback, was no ordinary outing.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/11/2021 (259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was just Game 21 on the schedule, a late November affair that wouldn’t have jumped off the page at the start of the long 82-game campaign. But make no mistake: Saturday’s clash against Calgary, one which saw the Winnipeg Jets dig an early 2-0 hole only to pull off an impressive 4-2 comeback, was no ordinary outing.

On a night they desperate needed something — anything — to go right against one of the NHL’s top teams so far, a fragile squad found enough in the tank to at least temporarily calm the brewing storm and prevent an ugly losing skid from growing to six.

Now the Jets have the chance to build some much-needed momentum with a four-game homestand that starts tonight against the disastrous desert dogs from Arizona.

CP Kyle Connor (centre) celebrates his game-winning goal against Calgary Mark Scheifele (left) and Brenden Dillon. It was his second of the night. (Larry Mac Dougal / The Canadian Press)

I’m not ready to declare all their problems solved based on one successful outing, and there are still some troubling trends which need to be addressed, but just like when an 0-2-1 start gave way to a 9-1-2 run, it’s probably safe to put the pitchforks and torches down. At least for the time being.

Here’s a few things on my mind, and in my notebook, as I made my way home Sunday following a turbulent road trip which took the team, along with yours truly, to three cities in three different time zones over a four-day span.

• A lump of coal to the NHL schedule maker for this dog’s breakfast of a week. My internal clock is all screwed up, and I didn’t have to break a sweat typing up a storm. I can’t imagine what’s it’s like for finely-tuned athletes — who are creatures of habit — to go from a 7 p.m. local start (6 p.m. central time) on Wednesday in Columbus (eastern time zone) to a 2:30 p.m. local start Friday in St. Paul (central time zone) to a 8 p.m local start (9 p.m. central time) Saturday in Calgary (mountain time zone). And how about the fact the Flames hadn’t played since a home date last Tuesday against Chicago? All of which makes what Winnipeg was able to accomplish on the final stop against a top-tier, rested opponent even more impressive.

• Following the 7-1 drubbing in Minnesota, I requested to speak with Connor Hellebuyck at Xcel Energy Center. I knew he’d likely be spitting fire after giving up four goals on 14 shots and getting pulled early in the second. And I expected he would candidly speak his mind, as he always does. Hellebuyck delivered, and then some, essentially calling out himself and his teammates for an “unacceptable performance” and all but guaranteeing a big bounce-back the following night by saying “we’re going to give it to them.” And, as he’s done so often in the past, Hellebuyck backed up the bravado with a brilliant performance. Teammates love the passion, and we in the media certainly appreciate the quality sound bites and storylines he helps produce.

• I’m sure it rubbed some Winnipeg fans the wrong way, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the Wild pouring some salt in the wound during Friday’s blowout with a cheeky scoreboard message shortly after the score became 6-0. “Winnipeg! Special! Winnipeg Jets offering Black Friday special on goals!” Ouch. For the record, I’m fully in favour of adding fuel to the fire of the hockey rivalry between Friendly Manitoba and Minnesota Nice. And the neighbours to the south have a healthy lead so far this year, courtesy of two wins on the ice and one on the Jumbotron. Perhaps revenge will be a dish served cold when Minnesota comes to Canada Life Centre for a pair of games later this season.

• Sports editor Steve Lyons in a text to me after the Minnesota game, in which Nate Schmidt was a minus-four. “He was leaking gravy out there.” Schmidt, a native of St. Cloud, had spoken on Thursday about celebrating U.S. Thanksgiving at home with family and being able to enjoy a delicious meal, with the colourful caveat that he didn’t want to have it coming out of his pores when he hit the ice the following afternoon.

• I had a feeling Paul Maurice wasn’t going to be able to help himself. I even told a colleague Friday night that I was expecting to see the line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler reunited sooner than later.

I also knew that if and when it happened, plenty of armchair coaches on social media would be crying foul. All of that came to fruition Saturday, and there’s no question putting the band back together on the top line is risky. They were dynamite three years ago, but time hasn’t been so kind. Specifically on the defensive end, where the fancy stats show they routinely get caved in. Still, Maurice went to his version of “in case of emergency break glass.” And wouldn’t you know it, Connor scored twice including the game-winner with just under five minutes to play. Although I’m not sure this is a long-term solution, there’s no question it provided a short-term spark. And Winnipeg’s three highest-paid forwards clearly enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

• I’ve been asked by many if Scheifele and especially Wheeler have struggled early because of their positive COVID-19 diagnosis last month and possible lingering effects. And while I don’t know the answer — both insist they are healthy — there’s no question the Jets need more from them. Wheeler, whose effort is always cranked to maximum, seems to run out of gas quickly on every shift these days and is usually the first player in his trio to change. I liked what I saw from the captain on Saturday, including primary assists in Connor’s two goals, so perhaps he’s primed to break out.

Speaking of players who need to do and show more, at both ends of the rink: Paging Nikolaj Ehlers.

• I do wonder if we’re soon going to see another reunion. That would be Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, who have been on separate lines all season. If the team’s recent struggles return, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this shutdown duo put back together. That’s definitely another club in Maurice’s bag he has yet to play. Dare we say the pitiful penalty kill is showing signs of life? The Jets went 9-for-11 on the trip (and 11-for-13 on the week dating back to last Monday’s game at home against Pittsburgh), and seemed to do a much better job disrupting zone entries and getting in shooting and passing lanes. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but it’s beginning to trend in the right direction. The power play, on the other hand, continues to flat-line, now in a 2-for-28 rut. That was punctuated by a five-minute man advantage against Calgary thanks to Milan Lucic’s boneheaded boarding major against Dylan DeMelo. The Jets handled the puck like a grenade for the first three minutes, then negated the rest with a penalty of their own. I suspect it will be the subject of much focus at practice this week.

• It’s about Evgeny Svechnikov. Look, I like what he’s brought to the team, both on and off the ice. The young Russian is a real character, as a recent mic’d up segment by the Jets showed. And the former first-rounder clearly has talent and is relishing a second chance to show it after things didn’t work out during an injury-plagued start to his career in Detroit. But Svechnikov, who plays with an edge, needs to reign it in a bit if he’s going to stay in the lineup. He took a foolish double-minor against Minnesota born purely out of frustration, then took a reckless boarding penalty in the first period against Calgary which immediately led to a goal seven seconds later that made it 2-0. Maurice is giving him some rope — he skated Saturday on what was essentially the second line with Copp and Pierre-Luc Dubois — and his tip of a Logan Stanley point shot set up Stastny’s game-tying goal in the middle frame. He’d be wise not to screw it up.

• It’s time to drive the Gus Bus back to the NHL. That would be David Gustafsson, the 21-year-old leading scorer on the Manitoba Moose and reigning MVP of the farm team. Veteran Riley Nash was signed this off-season as a fourth-line stop-gap, the way Nate Thompson was last year, Mark Letestu the year before that. The idea was Nash would be a key penalty killer. But he has not done that well at all, and has spent the last two games in the press box as a healthy scratch. Gustafsson, meanwhile, leads one of the AHL’s best PK units and has done everything the organization has asked of him as he continues to develop. If it means putting Nash on waivers to get Gustafsson up to the big club, so be it. At this point, it’s well worth the risk. Whether it’s as the fourth-line centre or even on the wing, the Swedish skater appears ready to take the next step. And the Jets could likely use his services.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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